When someone dies unexpectedly, violently, or of unknown causes, the coroner will investigate their death. The first step is usually a post-mortem – but if that doesn’t reveal enough information, the coroner will call for an inquest into the death.

This can be a really difficult time for those close to the person who has died. If you need more information about what happens at an inquest, we’re here to help.

This guide will cover:

 

What is an inquest?

A coroner’s inquest is a public court hearing where the coroner determines about how, when and where someone died following a post-mortem. It’s different to a trial in a criminal court; no-one is convicted at an inquest. The aim is to get all the facts about the circumstances of a death.

 

What happens at an inquest into a death?

A coroner’s court usually looks a lot like a criminal court. The coroner sits at the front while legal representatives sit facing them. The family of the person who has died sit behind the legal representatives.

There isn’t usually a jury at a coroner’s inquest. But one might be called in if:

  • The death was violent or unnatural and happened while the person was in custody or state detention;
  • It happened because of something a police officer did or did not do as part of their duties;
  • They died because of an accident, disease or poisoning which will need to be reported to a government body

The jury sits to one side of the room where they can clearly see the witness stand.

The coroner (and the jury, if there is one) hears evidence from witnesses who come to the court. Written statements from witnesses who can’t be there in person are read out. The coroner and legal representatives of the family will ask the witnesses questions.

Once all of the witnesses have given evidence, the coroner may call on them again to discuss whether there’s a risk that more people could die in the same circumstances.

 

How long does a coroner’s inquest take?

The coroner will make sure the inquest is held as soon as possible after the death – if possible, within 6 months. They will tell you if more time is needed and what to expect.

The hearing itself could take anything between half an hour to a week. But most last around half a day or so.

 

Who can attend an inquest?

Inquests are open to the public and the media, so anyone could potentially attend one. The date and location of the inquest will be announced in advance.

 

Who can ask questions at a coroner’s inquest?

Only a “properly interested person” or their legal representative is allowed to ask the witnesses questions at an inquest. A “properly interested person” might be:

  • The family of the person who’s died
  • The executor(s) of the will, or the person who has been chosen to manage their affairs
  • Solicitors acting for the next of kin
  • Insurers
  • Anyone who may be responsible for the death

The coroner may decide that other people have a proper interest – for example, if they are at some special risk.

 

How to find out inquest results

At the end of an inquest, the coroner (or the jury, if there is one) will complete and read out a Record of Inquest. This will state their conclusions about how the person died and what led to their death. This could be:

  • An accident
  • Misadventure (when you do something deliberately, but it has unexpected consequences)
  • Lack of attention after birth
  • Industrial disease (such as the asbestos cancer mesothelioma)
  • Stillbirth
  • Lawful killing (e.g. in self defence)
  • Unlawful killing (e.g. murder, manslaughter, death by dangerous driving)
  • Natural causes
  • Alcohol or drug-related
  • Traffic collision
  • Suicide
  • Open conclusion (there is not enough evidence to support a specific verdict)

There may also be a paragraph at the end of the report which describes how the person died. The coroner is not allowed to name or blame anyone in their report, but they may use this paragraph to make a comment about any failings or issues that have come to light during the inquest.

 

What happens after a coroner’s inquest?

The coroner will send their report to the registrar of deaths and write to any authorities who may need to take action to prevent further deaths. They will also share a copy with the family. Based on the result, you may then decide to consult a solicitor about appealing the decision or making a civil claim.

The coroner’s officer will also talk to you about how to get a copy of the death certificate after the inquest. If they haven’t yet sent an order for burial or cremation, they’ll send it now. You’ll also be able to apply for permission to take the body of the person who has died out of the country.

 

Can you have a funeral before an inquest?

Usually, yes. After the post-mortem, the coroner can release the body of the person who has died for a funeral if it’s no longer needed for the investigation. They will provide an interim certificate of death and an order for burial or cremation certificate. You can find a funeral director in your area here.

If the coroner needs to keep the person’s body, they’ll tell you why. If it’s likely to be held for a long time, you do have the option of holding a memorial service before the inquest. Memorial services can be held at any time, with or without a body present.

 

For more help on coroner’s inquests:

  • The charity Inquest has a very useful handbook, which can be downloaded here.
  • The Ministry of Justice guide to coroner’s services can be found here.
  • The Compassionate Friends charity has a series of inquest leaflets here.

 

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